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Commanders-in-Chief Should Command

President Obama may be coming under withering criticism from his own former secretaries of defense for his hesitant and uncertain conduct vis-à-vis Syria. But he has at least a few defenders left who argue—as David Ignatius does today in the Washington Post—that he is simply giving the public what it wants. Writes Ignatius:

Obama has accomplished goals that most Americans endorse, given the unpalatable menu of choices. Polls suggest that the public overwhelmingly backs the course Obama has chosen. A Post-ABC News survey asked Americans if they endorsed the U.S.-Russian plan to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons as an alternative to missile strikes; 79 percent were supportive. 

Have we now become a plebiscitary democracy where great questions of the day are to be decided based on public-opinion polls? What’s next? Are we going to give every American a Xbox-like device that he can use to instantly vote on every bill before Congress and every major decision on the president’s desk?

That’s not how the Founders envisioned this country operating. They created a representative democracy in which the people vote for their leaders and the leaders then are responsible for exercising their own judgment as to what course of action is best for the country. The voters still get a say, but they have to wait two to four years before they can give a thumbs up or thumbs down to their elected representatives. 

The genius of our system is plainly evident in how easily presidents who follow public opinion can be led astray. Americans approved of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by rough similar margins as they approve of the Syria chemical-weapons deal today. That did not get President Bush off the hook when the war went south; public opinion quickly turned. And there was scant sympathy among the president’s critics—including David Ignatius—for the argument that the invasion was right because it was popular.

By 2007 there was virtually no support among the public for the surge. Yet President Bush ordered it anyway, and it worked. As evidence came in of declining rates of violence in Iraq, support for the surge increased. In retrospect Bush had made the gutsiest and best call of his presidency by taking a tough stance in defiance of public opinion. And as events on the ground shifted, so did public opinion.

That’s what we expect commanders-in-chief to do. And it’s not just Bush or Republican presidents who make these tough calls. So do Democrats, ranging from Harry Truman with his support of NATO and the Marshall Plan (neither of which was initially popular) to Bill Clinton, with his support of unpopular interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Even Obama has defied public opinion to intervene in Libya. There was no more enthusiasm among voters for that conflict than there is now for the one in Syria.

So Obama will find scant refuge today in the argument that public-opinion polls support his stance. Sure, the public is supportive—but then the public hopes that the chemical-weapons deal will be carried out. Perhaps they imagine, as Ignatius does, that the deal forces Russia to collect Syria’s chemical weapons and could foster a political solution to the mess in Syria. If so, Obama may well be vindicated. But the greater likelihood is that the deal will be an excuse for Assad to stall for time, that most of his chemical weapons will never be destroyed, and that the United States will be complicit along with Russia in keeping his criminal regime in power. In that case, the verdict of the public—and history—is likely to turn against Obama.

The president should keep in mind the pearl of wisdom often voiced by embattled sports coaches who are under criticism from the fans and media for not starting player X or not calling play Y: If you let the fans in the stands make your coaching decisions for you, before long you’re likely to join them as a spectator.


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